beard-wide

George Clooney and Ben Affleck sporting beards. Photo: Getty

If you are repelled by the inexplicably large number of young men wearing big beards, the prediction by a pogonologist, or beard-scientist, from New South Wales will cheer you. We have reached “peak beard”, declares Dr Rob Brooks. From now on, beards will dwindle and fail, soon to be despised and shunned.

Dr Brooks is an evolutionary biologist, wouldn’t you just know it? In his book, the popularity of beards is a matter of “negative frequency-dependent selection”. In other words, if a few men wear beards and are thought sexy, then others will rush in to imitate them. When everyone has one, there’s no advantage in growing facial foliage.

I’m not sure we aren’t having the scientific beard pulled over our eyes here. Take the creature known as the bearded tamarin. The male displays a fine set of whiskers, and no doubt a lady tamarin goes for the Best in Show. But we shall never see a shaven tamarin. The wheel of fashion among tamarins never turns. Once a bearded tamarin, always a bearded tamarin. It’s a tamarin thing.

Not so the bearded hipster. From Hoxton to Jesmond, trendy young men currently comb their hair and grow beards. It won’t last, we know that. This year we have Hairy Bikers, and even Hairy Allotment Holders in the shape of Gary and Pete, stars of Tuesday’s Big Allotment Challenge on BBC Two (and who also, in a florid counter-cultural display, wear ties with short-sleeved shirts). But is it all to do with evolutionary advantage, as on the savannah in the spring of our species’ life? There’s more to it than that.

The great law of fashion is that nothing is too absurd to be embraced. Having immobilised their womenfolk in crinolines, the Victorians proceeded to tack false bottoms on to them in the form of bustles. This might seem to chime in with the baboon ideal of beauty. But the next thing women knew was the ideal of the 18-inch waist, pinched in by whalebone and corset strings, to the injury of their innards – not in itself an evolutionary bright move.

A parallel madness affected male facial hair in the late 19th century. The sexy Pre-Raphaelites were not exempted from the extremes of hirsuteness: Edward Burne-Jones wore a beard like a Samurai breastplate; Ford Madox Brown looked as though he was drying a quantity of horsehair on a line fixed around his chin. Now, if you ask me, these were misogynistic gestures, despite the artists’ uxorious instincts; for I have never come across a woman who actually likes a man’s beard. It brings out the Delilah in them.

Some women say they like a man with a beard, but I suspect their preference is for the man behind the rebarbative barrier. When beards reigned, women just put up with them as they did with the wing-collars, spats, cigars and a strong smell of horse that characterised male life in the Victorian heyday.

Meanwhile, the men defied negative frequency-dependent selection by all growing beards together – to a man, almost. Don’t forget that even the Thin Red Line at Balaclava wore beards, and they were soldiers, for heaven’s sake. The 1880s brought a hallucinogenic heightening to Victorian beardiness. The Cabinet in Gladstone’s third administration looked like an explosion in a mattress factory: Earl Spencer and Hugh Childers were the hairiest, along with someone called A J Mundella, who looked as though he had become permanently entangled with an entire stick of candy-floss.

Then it all disappeared, like the snows of yesteryear. For the whole 20th century, beards were no-noes. Oddly enough, it was the King who held out longest, as no one could accuse him of lax standards. But George V died in 1936 and beards became as unthinkable as earrings for men.

Mrs Thatcher said she wouldn’t have a man with a beard in her Cabinet. Tony Blair’s machine had the same effect. Poor old Alistair Darling, whose alternate-coloured beard, eyebrows and hair were reminiscent of a liquorice allsort, had to shave. Even the Satan of Spin, Peter Mandelson, was driven at last to take off his moustache.

Speaking personally, I went through all this unperturbed. I was certain no one would follow me in the beardedness that had somehow grown on me. I endured taunts and hate crime. I was taken for a Jew, which is an honour, or, in beardless Turkey, for a Greek. Children in the street shouted “ZZ Top”, or, from November, “Father Christmas”. Now the unthinkable has happened and I look like a middle-aged man trying to be trendy. I can’t wait for the peak to peak.

-The Telegraph, UK